Saturday, February 28, 2009

Celebrity is as Celebrity does…but would you buy what they wear?

To state that celebrities influence our lives is understating the role they actually play.

Celebrities are a symptom of our deep interest in other peoples lives and they life they live is often, but not always a tad more fun that the one we live. We are social animals, we are interested in others and we often claim it openly by what we wear, drive, read or even eat.

This interest has increased in the past few years as the number of celebrities has increased as well as the coverage about them and today you can’t open a magazine or watch TV without noticing the number of celebrities that leverage their names to push a product into our lives. This is an important angle to this economic activity, celebrities do not always wear or use what they promote, that’s more into the realm or public relations where the media catch one of them actually carrying a brand we recognise. Celebrity advertising is an economic activity, they were paid for it (celebrities truly know the meaning of multiple streams of income.) We know that and we still buy the products because of the association that they claim to have. This is the realm of celebrity-association marketing, and that realm is not far, far away. It’s ever present and increasing in reach…everyday.

Blurry origins to clear-cut marketing strategy

Can we identify the beginning of celebrity marketing? Probably not. It’s as remote as time itself. Once, pharaohs, kings and queens, wore jewelry or clothes that were quickly copied by savvy merchants and promoted to the remote confine of their empire. There was a time when copying wasn’t such a legal problem as it is today and more a form of flattery (even though it was sometimes punishable by death…so much for flattery.)

Fast forward to the second millennium and in the 18th and 19th Century we saw leading celebrities setting the stage in terms of fashion, behaviour, eating habits and etiquette in general. It’s in the 20th Century however that celebrity marketing took a turn and became the industry it is today.

The advent of modern celebrity marketing saw the light in the early parts of the 20th Century when Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, thirty-second President of the United States, raised a few eyebrows among the American elite with her involvement in advertising. Coupled with Jean-René Lacoste creation of a line of clothing around the same time and you have the beginning of modern celebrity marketing. This type of marketing accelerated in the 1960 with Audrey Hepburn claiming to have breakfast at Tiffany’s and in the 1970s sports celebrities such as Björn Borg and John MacEnroe became stars in their own right. Today, celebrity marketing is everywhere and is a full branch of the marketing arsenal of many top corporations in the luxury world or the fast moving consumer industry.

As an anecdote, it’s interesting to notice that recently the definition of celebrities has taken a backward turn…in time. The advent of museum shops creating jewelry pieces based on famous works of Arts depicting kings, queens and nobles, has brought celebrity marketing into a new dimension, one where the celebrities do not get paid (nor complain) but the brand association and desire the product create is equally strong.

Today, celebrity marketing is alive and strong. The results are uncertain but just like advertising (the favourite marketing tool of celebrity advertising) it’s not always easy to measure the impact they have on us and on sales.

Oscar Night 1989

The night where all major, and minor, stars come to see who will be crowned with the gold statuette represents the epitome of glamour since May 1929. And six months later, on Black Monday, the world’s economies were redefined. Despite the anti-climax of that year, that night has mesmerised us every year cince.

In 1989 the organisers made a slight change that made marketers took notice. They introduced the gift-basket, the  swag or schwag, those in the know seems to insist on calling it.

It was at first a simple ‘thank-you for being there’ gesture and carried no real impact on their business. It has since taken a life on its own spurring websites and blogs trying to identify what’s in it (as the organisers seeing the frenzy and sometimes ugly side of our beloved celebrities, decided not to release the list anymore.) And if today Keanu Reeves politely declines the basket, it has become an important tool in celebrity marketing where companies battle to be included by offering more and more expensive gifts (this year’s swag exceeds US$100,000.)

Swag is nothing really new. It’s been used in concerts for years. It’s the T-shirts or posters music bands use to promote their brand during and after a concert. It was a way to survive and promote. You could almost say that the corporate gift sitting on your desk at work is a swag and it’s role is branding. The most studied and often misunderstood aspect of marketing.

The Swag shall prevail

How does it work? Why is the swag so important in celebrity marketing?

After all, if it’s just a corporate gift, such gifts are often cheap and received by the dozens in any trade show you can go too. The main difference is that the celebrity swag is a luxury item, not a worthless plastic fan. That’s because the product is the swag, not one specially prepared with the brand logo on it. This is the twist that Oscar night 1989 brought to the forefront of marketing experts.

Celebrities wouldn’t be caught alive with your plastic toy in their hands but they’ll wear the watch, they’ll carry the bag or they’ll even the drive the car you offer them.

And to a marketer, this could be as powerful as a well prepared, well designed advertising campaign. The burst of interest in some products celebrities have created has sometimes changed the course of a sales line from barely acceptable to fantastic. While this is more anecdotal than fact as, like with many other marketing tools, there is no obvious direct relationship between an increase in a sales and the picture of a celebrity wearing your product (with exceptions am sure.) This brings along one important question: Is celebrity public relations more powerful than advertising?

Celebrity PR vs. Celebrity Advertising

It is important to understand the different between the two as both should be part of your strategy if you’re going into celebrity marketing.

Celebrity PR is more subtle. It’s about finding ways to get the celebrity to hold your watch, wear your jewel or come to your hotel and take a snapshot, a snapshot that will then become part of your marketing strategy. Many luxury products have on their payroll people whose only responsibility is to make sure that the right celebrities have the opportunity to use their products. Celebrity marketing is about brand association, and they wouldn’t be pleased if the ‘wrong’ celebrity was using your product. Of course, the definition of right and wrong is entirely dependent on your brand essence, on your marketing story. Just like normal PR, the outcome is less controllable but often more trusted than it’s cousin, celebrity advertising.

Celebrity advertising is about leveraging a celebrity’s brand because it matches the marketing message you’re pushing to the market with your own product. That brand association, while important in PR, is crucial in advertising. Choose the wrong association and it will backfire, choose the right one, and you could see an increase in sales (do not forget that advertising is about increasing sales, not brand entertainment.) Celebrity advertising opens our mind to fantasies, and you are better off remembering that your target market often fantasise more about the celebrity in that ad rather than the product they prominently display.

As in all marketing strategies, start with understanding your target market. How many are they? What do they do? What are their perceptions about your product? Do they really read the magazine your displaying your celebrity ad in? And if they do, will they act on the impression you’ve created today? Tomorrow? In the world of fast moving consumer goods celebrity marketing aim at the man and women in the street. In the world of luxury good however, the target market of celebrity marketing are often celebrities themselves and therefore do not ‘rush’ to any shops. The influence is more subtle. And celebrity advertising is about influence.

Whether you leverage both PR and advertising in your strategy is up to you of course but is your marketing story clear? Is it clean? Is it relevant? And is it ready for celebrity marketing? You are to remember as well that a celebrity will lend his or her name to a product for monetary reasons as well as to further extend their reach (or not to be forgotten as in some cases.) So if the marketing activity could potentially damage their reputation, or they’ve seen another celebrity being hurt by it, they will think twice.

Is Celebrity Marketing relevant for your product?

Yes and no. It depends on your product really.

Celebrity PR does work and the cost can justify the activity. Celebrity advertising, however, can be an expensive exercise. While these are but two tools in your celebrity marketing strategy, shop opening is another one, you need to determine it’s potential ROI before your commit to any course of action.

Celebrity marketing, just like the celebrities themselves, is fickle. Your marketing story cannot afford to be. Focus on your story and then add the right celebrity to your recipe and you could come-up on top. And so will the celebrity. It’s only when the two are closely connected that celebrity marketing truly brings you to the stars.